Probably because it wasn’t a tradition in the Lutheran church of my youth, the words Shrove Tuesday meant nothing to me when I encountered them a few weeks ago.
But I was delighted to discover that the day before Ash Wednesday has a centuries-long association with pancakes. Turns out, there are few foods with a history as diverse as the pancake.
American Indian tribes were enjoying a form of fried cakes long before English and other Western European settlers brought their affection for the pancake with them to the New World. The colonists took particular pleasure in pancakes on the day before the start of Lent, an exercise in clearing their pantries of eggs, butter, sugar and other luxuries, all in the name of Lenten sacrifice.
“Eating such a rich, buttered cake on this day was the last gasp of gourmandism before forty days of self-denial,” writes John Mariani in “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink.”
Flat, griddled cakes went by a flurry of names over the centuries: “No cake” was the early translation of nokchick, a native Narragansett word for a soft-battered cake. Other monikers included “batter cakes,” “flannel cakes,” “hoe cakes,” “slapjacks,” “Johnnycakes” and “flapjacks,” and it wasn’t until the 1840s that the word “pancake” became the generally accepted term.
Naturally, American entrepreneurship jumped on the pancake bandwagon. “Self-Rising Pancake Flour,” the nation’s first ready-mix pancake product, debuted in 1889 in Missouri. It was later renamed “Aunt Jemima,” borrowing the title of a minstrel show song.
The country’s first pancake restaurant chain, the International House of Pancakes, or IHOP, opened in suburban Los Angeles in 1958; the company now has more than 1,400 outlets.
But why go out, particularly this coming Tuesday, a k a Shrove Tuesday, when preparing delicious pancakes is so easy, and so satisfying?
Flipping those flapjacks
One of my happiest childhood memories is watching my father make pancakes. I’m fairly certain that Donny relied upon Bisquick or some other convenience mix (like most men of his generation, he wasn’t much of a cook, outside of Saturday morning pancakes and steaks on the grill), and it was the only instance that I can recall seeing our heavy, rectangular cast-iron griddle — so big that it straddled two burners — being put to use.
With my siblings and I seated at the table — and Mom, too, taking a rare break from kitchen duty — we’d watch Dad at the stove, easing batter onto that hot, spattering cooktop, and deftly wielding a spatula as he stacked thin, golden pancakes on a platter. They would disappear as quickly as he could make them.
During the intervening decades, I found myself following Dad’s pancake example (OK, minus the prepackaged mix), at least in the batter department, where the operative words were thin, semi-lumpy and pourable.
That is until two years ago, when I encountered “The New Comfort Food” (Chronicle Books, 2011) and a different kind of pancake recipe.
Adapted from a classic New Hampshire diner, this time-tested formula has a crazy amount of leavening, which quickly turns the batter into a doughy, sticky, air bubble-filled mass. Pourable, it’s not, but this batter yields a high-rising, incredibly tender pancake.
Handling this batter requires some finesse. I quickly discovered that a heaping and semi-messy scoop of batter didn’t spread as it hit the center of the pan, and who wants a too-small, too-tall pancake?
Not me. Using a narrow, flat-blade spatula, I nudged the batter outward — from its highest point in the center to the pancake’s outer edge — creating a larger, and slightly slimmer pancake. Perfect.
Another difference: The vast majority of pancake recipes that I’ve encountered call for greasing the griddle or pan with cooking oil. That comes as no surprise; vegetable and canola oils have a higher smoke point than butter, and pancakes require a hot pan.
But this recipe requires butter, and plenty of it; let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a low-calorie pancake. However, using butter is tricky. A too-hot pan or griddle will burn the butter, and a not-hot-enough-cooking surface will make for a lousy pancake.
That’s why monitoring the heat level is essential. I’ve found that ever-so-slightly reducing the heat after each batch seems to work, although, in the end, so what if the butter turns a little brown? The trade-off is beautifully browned pancakes with a delicately crisp, almost lacy exterior.
Dad would have loved them.
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